Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Know Thy Source, or, Why You Sound Silly Quoting Polonius

Entry by Tanya Anderson

It’s a deliberately inflammatory article title, but as I age, I find myself getting more and more annoyed with the abundance of “Bad Shakespeare” out there. Exhibit A: a screen capture of a Google image search for “To Thine Own Self be True” necklaces.

Lots and lots of necklaces celebrating...Polonius?

Perhaps I should back up a bit and explain that as I age, I also find myself drowning in an onslaught of catalogs that have well-meaning, if rather empty, plaques and knickknacks of platitudes that seem to abandon ship midway, jumping the spiritual wave for several pages dedicated to personal massagers of various shapes and sizes before concluding with an assortment of various items lumped together at random. It’s as if, in the final pages, some content editor or layout artist grew weary of trying to figure out who would actually purchase a toilet paper cover shaped like four putti fighting, but figured, “You know, eff it – I’ll stick it next to the ladybug potholders and statues of fairy-angels praying, I guess?”

The whole experience of thumbing through these catalogs is aesthetic gluttony. I’m appalled that I have gawked through the whole thing, and I imagine my mind’s eye looks like this wee dog:

Months will pass. Babies will be born, people we love will die. Students will groan that they have to read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet and put off writing term papers until the wee hours in the morning – wee-er than the little dog up there. But some things remain the same: these necklaces are always at the very front or very back of those magazines. You can see from the thumbnails here that they are wildly popular, available in various sizes and shapes – even the Möbius band -- which makes the Shakespeare quote on them appear even more cosmic or esoteric.

Of course, it’s not esoteric. Shakespeare penned the phrase, in what is, by many, considered to be the pinnacle of his dramatic achievements: Hamlet. The sentiment in the words appeals to our modern sensibilities because it echoes much of the philosophy we associate with our age: a knowledge of self and science, an enlightenment, a cogito ergo sum, if you will.

Where, then, is the harm?

The phrase, unfortunately, seems a strange quote for edification for those of us familiar with its speaker, the dramatis persona Hamlet himself derides as “a tedious old fool.” Hamlet, after all, can force Polonius into parroting anything absurd he says:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it's like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.

The Parroting Polonius (you'll nose him in a month)

In his brief stage life, Polonius is never true to himself. He is officious, meddlesome – even willing to risk his own daughter’s safety and sanity to stay in the good graces of Claudius and Gertrude. By the time Hamlet stabs Polonius in the queen’s chambers (which, now that I see that written down, seems like I’m playing medieval-by-way-of-Renaissance-Clue), we understand that Polonius is the least likely character to remain true to himself.

Excellent.  No more Polonian pith. 
On to uncover Old Hamlet's murder!

Intriguingly, people often quote another of Polonius’s aphorisms  out of context: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Here we witness the aged courtier in his element, addressing the king and queen. The speech, in its entirety, runs:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .

before Gertrude can take no more and cuts him off with, “More matter, with less art.” Here again, while the phrase itself is pithy, it only remains so if one is unaware of the speaker or context.

There are far worse things than tacky catalogs and quoting Shakespeare out of context, to be sure. But for the sheer frequency of these misappropriations, Bad Shakespeare awards this use of the Bard’s matter without acknowledging the art in them:

Do you have a Polonius necklace?  Do you like to remind people that 'Brevity is the soul of wit'? Weigh in and let Bad Shakespeare know if we should eat crow.


  1. What a great take on the Bard! So let me throw in my two cents. Saw a production of the Scottish play in which the word "before" was apparently misunderstood by everyone doing the show. Set in a future (for what reason I know not) there was an empty onstage, upright, and uncovered. The lead, in delivering the line "Is this a dagger I see...(etc)" approched the drum, looked down into it, and said into the open drum: "Is this a dagger I see before me? (followed by what I might be mistaken was a " me, me, me, me, me, fading into the distance. And you talk about bad Shakespeare! You've got to be kidding! Keep up the good writing! Appreciate you efforts!

  2. Sorry, "...there was an EMPTY STEEL DRUM onstage, upright..." didn't copy and paste. Apologies!

  3. Thanks for commenting, Gordon! Directors make some strange decisions about staging, don't they? I try to tell myself that I can learn something even from "bad" Shakespeare, which is the point of this project. :)

  4. As to the point of the project: Precisely!